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Sad day for Rupert as cannery closes

Prince Rupert is reeling after Canfisco announced it will be shutting down its salmon canning operations at its Oceanside plant.
Conrad Lewis

Prince Rupert is reeling after the Canadian Fishing Corporation (Canfisco) announced it will be shutting down its salmon canning operations at its Oceanside plant.

“I can’t give you an exact number [on the number of jobs lost]. Most of the jobs that would be directly impacted would be the ones for people in our trades maintenance group, who are involved in maintaining and operating the canning equipment itself. Also, there will be some impact on the general workforce, because we’ll still be doing unloading and dressing of the salmon, but that doesn’t take as many people as putting it into the cans as well,” Rob Morley, Canfisco vice-president of production and corporate development,  said on Thursday.

“The more senior people will still be called into work to do all those operations and some of the junior people will not get as much work, and we tend to hire a large number of new people every year in any event, so it will be that the people won’t be hired [early next year] … At this time of year, essentially everyone’s laid off for most of the winter and they wouldn’t normally be coming back until some time early in the new year,” he added.

The company blamed low returns on salmon in the area over the past few years for the cutbacks.

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU-Unifor) responded to the news last Friday at a press conference at Fishermen’s Hall.

“[Canfisco] doesn’t deny that they’re sending more and more product to China to be processed and we’re very concerned because we believe that fish caught on the North Coast ($400 million worth every year) — we should be processing that here and not sending it to Vancouver or offshore,” said UFAWU northern representative, Joy Thorkelson.

The union plans to make their case to the provincial and federal governments in the coming months. Their main argument centres around the ‘adjacency principle’ — an international practice developed in the Canada Oceans Act and other international documents, outlining the mandate that fish should be processed adjacent to the area where they’re caught. The union wants this principle put into practice.

The Jim Pattison Group, owners of the Canfisco Oceanside plant and Seal Cove plant, own a virtual monopoly of the fishing industry,  Kim Olsen, UFAWU-Unifor president said.

“In the last 10 years, Pattison bought and closed down BCP and Ocean Fish. Pattison operates Bella Coola Fisheries and Canfisco and through these two companies, owns or controls the majority of seine licences and net-caught salmon production in B.C.,” UFAWU stated in a  press release.

The Jim Pattison Group also controls processing plants in Alaska and Washington, as well as B.C.

“The issue of one processing company being allowed to control 70 - 80 per cent of salmon harvest (through salmon licence ownership) and the same in processing capability should raise huge concerns. What one company does impacts whole communities like Prince Rupert. In the U.S. this kind of monopoly would not be allowed to exist - and our governments need to review the vertically integrated ownership and control of salmon in Canada,” the release continued.

Along with job losses, working hours are expected to be cut for employees remaining at the plant. However, Canfisco’s Seal Cove plant “will still be operating as normal”, Morley said.

“The demand for canned salmon is declining, and together with its limited supply and high costs, we can no longer support the maintenance and operation of the canning operation in Prince Rupert.”

While the Oceanside Plant handles more than just salmon, it’s salmon that is the biggest operation.

“It does herring as well. So we unload and freeze herring and from time to time, we’ll unload other species like roe fish. Ground fish and loading operations are split between Oceanside and Seal Cove plants,” Morley said. “Salmon is definitely the most important thing going on there.”

“We’re going to sit down with the [United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union] and talk about how we can best restructure and minimize and mitigate the impacts,” Morley added.

The Canfisco release continues to say that the company’s plan for the future involves continuing to load and process salmon “into other product forms” at Canfisco’s Oceanside and Seal Cove plants and that there will be no impact on the unloading and other processing operations for all other species.

The cause of the restructuring is due to a number of factors, namely the low salmon stocks, competition with plants in Alaska and their lower labour costs and reduced access from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), cutting back the exploitation rate.

“It’s not just this year. We’ve consistently not seen the volumes that the plant was built to handle. It was built to ideally can over 400,000 cases a year, and I think there’s only been a couple years in the last 20 where we’ve been anywhere near that number … That’s a result, in some cases, of poorer returns, and in some cases, reduced access from the DFO cutting back the exploitation rate on some of these fisheries and shifting more of the volume to fisheries further up the river,” Morley said.

In terms of solid numbers, this year’s 40,000 cases was the lowest in quite some time, but is part of a growing trend of lower and lower salmon returns.

“The volumes in that plant over the last 10 years have varied between I think 200,000 cases, but this past year it was only 40,000. We’ve had other years in the last five that have been less than 100,000 as well, so those kinds of volumes are not sufficient to run a cost-effective operation,” said Morley.

Arnie Nagy, president of Local 31 Shoreworkers and a union general executive board member said that the Jim Pattison Group has lost the trust of its workers in the Rupert area on Friday.

“The bottom line is Jimmy Pattison has lost the social licence to process fish. He’s clearly made it obvious that they do not care about the community and the economic devastation that they’re creating for people in this town - the numbers being tossed around are 450 - 500 direct jobs [lost]. That doesn’t count the other jobs in the community that depend on the fish plant … I think you’re going to see a community fight back like you haven’t seen in a long time because this community and outlying communities understand the importance of the commercial fishing industry to the entirety of the North Coast,” he said.

“Canadian Fishing Company has said they are going to leave the cannery equipment here for now and we don’t know for how long — obviously until they decide to use it somewhere else. We’re very resistant to them moving [it] if they try to do that and we hope to get to the provincial and federal ministers in the next week to talk,” said Thorkelson, adding that it’s unlikely a solution will be found with the various governments before Christmas and it will likely be February that the federal government may get to potentially creating legislation and addressing UFAWU’s concerns.


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